Talk about feeling wanted: On a lodge-to-lodge trip about 150 miles west of Juneau, a living welcome mat rolls toward our party of seven paddlers at each destination.
In Gull Cove, at the guest cabins of South Passage Outfitters, giggling young twins Rosie and Alice Montgomery greet us pierside. Parents Dennis and Peggy, who own the small, rustic resort, follow behind. Then come Maggie, Ying, and Tang―two tail-swishing dogs and a tortoise-shell cat.
Next day, nine miles away, we reach shore at The Hobbit Hole Guesthouse, on the middle Inian Island. Innkeeper Jane Button strides toward the dock with Lab-mixes Pearl and Star trotting by her side. A cluster of honking ducks waddle to keep up, and Sylvia the cat deigns to join the fanfare.
Last, in the hoisted-boardwalk village of Elfin Cove, Tanaku Lodge owner Dennis Meier lends a hand to tie up our kayaks. "You guys look like you need a cold beer," he says. "It'll be in your rooms by the time you get there. And dinner's at 6:30. Fresh halibut."
Gustavus-based outfitter Spirit Walker Expeditions organizes this tour for meeting real Alaskans and sharing their habitats at three isolated inns. "Our regular camping and paddling trips are immersions into the natural world," says our guide, Nate Borson. "But lodge-to-lodge is as much cultural as it is natural science."
Along with wilderness kayaking, we also enjoy well-dressed beds (some with down comforters and pillows), full private baths, splendid water views from not luxurious but certainly pleasing rooms, and delicious fare. In Gull Cove, Dennis Montgomery's aromatic breakfast frittata draws us to the cookhouse cabin, and we all want the recipe.
"You start with a broken oven," he says, "and you try to fix it but make a sooty smell instead. So you fry an onion to get rid of the smell. Then you stir up some eggs and put on some Parmesan cheese and let it bake on top of the stove." Both funny and resourceful, Dennis named three of his guest cabins This, That, and The Other, guaranteeing comic confusion.
"We'll take this," I say. "You mean That," says Carol Light, a fellow paddler. "Because this is That. We want This, which isn't this."
At The Hobbit Hole inn, dinnertime brings ivory king salmon. Reeled in by Jane's commercial fisherman husband, Greg Howe, the salmon is marinated in Alaskan amber beer and perfectly grilled. We have only to look out Jane's window for the source of thyme for the popovers, sage for the roasted potatoes, and baby lettuces for our salads. At breakfast, our appetites renew for neon-yellow scrambled eggs, compliments of the ducks who'd greeted us, and pancakes speckled with fresh blueberries from Jane's garden.
Our expedition intersperses kayaking with hikes in maritime spruce forests and squishy, colorful bogs. Such activities wrap around Alaska's spectacular scenery and wildlife. On the leisurely paddle from Gull Cove to The Hobbit Hole, a raft of nearly 20 sea otters cavorts in kelp, and humpback whales blow toward the coastline. Interlacing paddles, we anchor our kayaks to watch otter antics and explosive bursts of vapor from exhaling whales. "It's nature's TV," says Carol's fiancé, Tom DeBusk. Following Spirit Walker's philosophy, we keep our distance, share binoculars, and remain quiet.
Both Virginians, Carol and Tom often river kayak in the Southeastern states, but this trip marks their saltwater-paddling debut. "It's almost like two different sports," he says. Carol agrees, "Whitewater is swift. This is slow and mellow."
Not always. At The Hobbit Hole, Nate says our five-mile route to Elfin Cove will cut a diagonal across South Inian Pass. There, Icy Strait ebbs to the Gulf of Alaska, and "currents flow so fast they're like rapids," he says. Reading the tide table, he resolves, "We'll need to cross before 4:07 tomorrow."
Tomorrow comes, and it's 4:37 when we arrive at the pass. (We'd dawdled at The Hobbit Hole and among myriad photo ops.) Though calm and reassuring, Nate shouts firmly above the sound of rushing water, "We go now or turn back."
"Go!" we yell, and ply the paddles toward unleashed currents. Every second that passes delivers more force―on nature's part and ours. We buck our way into the worst of it, protected only by our 17-foot double fiberglass Seascapes and the expertise of our guides.
With Juneau photographer John Hyde in his back seat, Nate maneuvers close to Carol and Tom. Apprentice guide Eric Syrene, alone in his kayak, buddies reassuringly alongside my husband, Bob, and me.
Thirty minutes later, we emerge from the saltwater roller coaster and jockey into position for paddling into Elfin Cove, whose main "street" is a saltwater inlet. Here's where Dennis' cold-beer invitation at his Tanaku Lodge joins our memories.
Together with the other lodge hosts and our terrific Spirit Walker guides, Dennis made us feel at home in this grand, remote region. For travelers like us, who want a warm splash of comfort with a big dash of adventure, these Alaskans have created the perfect setup.